In recent years, as Russia’s struggling economy has limited the nation’s military modernization efforts, the Kremlin has found a great deal of success by leaning into the old Soviet practice of controlling perceptions that are spread around the world through media outlets of varying sizes that are either directly or indirectly supported by the Russian government.
State-owned Russian outlets have already found their way to some prominence within the United States, including RT, Sputnik, and TASS, with many “independent” news outlets cropping up online that are actually just smaller mouthpieces for those same organizations. These smaller outlets serve as a form of “citation chain” for larger media organizations to run stories that lack factual credibility. A story with a loose factual basis is reported in a handful of small “independent” outlets, which are then picked up by a number of larger ones, and then finally reported on by sites with global reach like RT, citing a page that cited a page that cited a page with weak factual reporting. If the chain extends back far enough, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine where the story really came from, and therefore, increasingly difficult to disprove. This method also insulates these large outlets when their stories do prove to be untrue, as it allows them to simply point the finger at other outlets that were cited.
This methodology has been on full display in the Russian media in recent weeks thanks to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. According to Russian media outlets, the end of the treaty will lead to a complete shift in nuclear strategy wherein both the United States and Russia will have to adopt a strike-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to nuclear warfare. It will also force the Russians to deploy massive nuclear doomsday weapons near American shores, Russian experts contend, ensuring America’s destruction in any nuclear exchange.
With the INF treaty all but dead, one Russian paper warns of “a situation even more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis.” And the government paper says it “cannot exclude” Russia deploying a “100 megaton nuclear…Doomsday weapon” off the U.S. coast. #ReadingRussia pic.twitter.com/iJxOXpXWmE
— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) February 4, 2019
“If US missiles are deployed in Poland or the Baltic states, they’ll be able to reach Russia in minutes. In such an event, the way Russia currently conceives using nuclear weapons, as a retaliatory strike, becomes impossible, since there won’t be time to work out which missiles have been launched against Russia, what their trajectory and their targets are,” an unnamed Russian expert cited in its national media explained. “This is why there is now a temptation for both us and for them to adopt the doctrine of a preemptive strike.”
Of course, that very concept assumes the reader has never heard of a nuclear triad–which is the method both Russia and the United States employ to ensure no new weapon could force such a “first strike” mentality. America’s nuclear triad includes ballistic missiles, aircraft, and submarine-launched nuclear weapons that guarantee we could launch a nuclear response no matter how devastating that initial blow may be. This methodology leads to the concept of mutually assured destruction, which is an effective guarantee than any single offensive launch of a nuclear weapon from the U.S. to Russia or vice versa would lead to the utter destruction of both nations.
So, if Russia was already violating the INF treaty and, if we’re being perfectly frank, even new short and intermediate range nuclear missiles likely won’t prompt a significant shift in nuclear posture around the world, what’s the value in painting such an apocalyptic picture? Most likely, it’s meant to fuel existing global concerns that ending the treaty could lead to increased tensions. In the United States, many people are eager to be critical of any decisions made by the Trump administration, and the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon could certainly bolster debate on the topic between American leaders and allies–keeping our conflicts internal and furthering the ideological divides at play in American politics.
In other words, Russia is up to the same old tricks we’ve already seen from them time and time again. The question is–will we keep falling for it?